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New Genesis SUV could be a game changer for Hyundai's luxury brand

Updated 9:46 AM ET, Wed January 29, 2020

(CNN Business) - Competing in the luxury car market without any SUVs in the lineup is like playing football without linemen. It's asking to get run over. That's why it was crucial for Hyundai's luxury brand, Genesis, to finally have its own SUV.

The GV80 SUV, which made its US debut at an event in Miami Tuesday night, could be a game changer for the South Korea-based auto maker. Up until now, Genesis has offered only sedans, even as customers have been increasingly turning to SUVs. Mercedes-Benz has eight different SUV models in the United States, while BMW offers seven. Even Porsche, a luxury automaker renowned for sports cars, makes two SUVs and both are now its bestselling products.

Today, Genesis sales are miniscule compared to these established luxury brands. Last year, it sold 21,000 cars in the United States. BMW sold more than twice as many of its 3-series sedan alone.

Still, Mark Del Rosso, head of Genesis's North American operations, boasts that last year's sales doubled from the year before. That was largely thanks to sales of the new G70, an award-winning sporty sedan.

After the new GV80, Del Rosso said, Genesis plans to soon add at least one more SUV to its lineup and an electric vehicle. That would give the company a total of six models. Genesis's growing lineup increases the possibility that the auto maker could one day mimic the success of Lexus, just 30 years old but already one of the world's leading luxury car brands in both sales and prestige.

"I've learned to never ever underestimate Hyundai," said Sharon Silke Carty, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver.

Hyundai has proven itself in the US market. In the most recent Consumer Reports auto reliability rankings, Hyundai was the sixth most reliable car brand, ranking just behind Genesis. (Lexus was number one.) Hyundai is also no longer thought of as a brand people buy mostly based on price.

Kia, which is also part of the Hyundai Motor Group, has followed a similar path. Kia was once seen as strictly a bargain product, but those perceptions have changed. The Kia Telluride SUV recently won the North American SUV of the Year award, as well as MotorTrend SUV of the Year. Critics have lauded the Telluride's luxury-like ride quality and amenities.

Genesis, too, has established itself with its lineup of strong cars, said Brian Moody, executive editor of Autotrader.com.

"You're never going to get to the place of big sales and marketplace recognition if you don't start with really good, compelling vehicles to begin with," said Moody, "and at least they've done that."

The Genesis G70, in particular, has made an impact. A direct competitor to the performance sedans, like the BMW 3-series, it won both Motor Trend Car of the Year and North American Car of the Year awards last year, as well being named one of Car & Driver's Top 10 cars.

Genesis has taken great pains to minimize any apparent similarities between its own vehicles and those of Hyundai and Kia.

"They're being extremely careful to make sure people don't feel its just a Hyundai or Kia with different styling," said Jake Fisher, head of auto testing for Consumer Reports.

For instance, even though the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade SUVs have been very well received, the GV80 is not related to them. While those SUVs are built around what is essentially front-wheel-drive engineering, the GV80 is based on real-wheel drive engineering, like the Genesis sedans.

Also, like Genesis's other cars, the GV80 is designed to look more like a Bentley, noted Car and Driver's Carty.

"It looks kind of like a Bentayga," she said, referring to Bentley's SUV.

It has a similarly large grille and side vents. Genesis's winged logo is also somewhat similar to Bentley's. Genesis vehicles do not come with Bentley prices, though, and the brand makes a strong appeal to value conscious consumers, said Fisher.

Genesis cars are not exactly cheap, but they tend to cost considerably less than directly competitive German luxury models. (Genesis said the price of the GV80 will be revealed closer to when it goes on sale in the US this summer.)

The interior, though, looks like the cabin of something far more expensive. It has clean lines, quilted leather and lots of shiny metal surfaces and wood trim.

The new SUV also uses active sound deadening to quiet the interior. This involves using microphones to detect noise in the cabin then using the SUV speakers to generate sound waves that precisely cancel out the noise. The SUV will also have driver assistance features, like adaptive cruise control that will learn the driving tendencies of individual drivers.

The SUV's twin sets of headlights — which are in two separate strips — will become a design signature for the brand. The GV80 is intended to become the brand's flagship product, said Del Rosso.

"The DNA is distinctly Korean, audacious, progressive etc.," he said. "And I think the piece of it that I really, really love is that we can clearly differentiate on design."

For now, though, it's the brand's first entrant in a crowded field of SUVs from well-known luxury players.

"Let's be honest, it's going to be tough to build a brand from the ground up in that segment. I'm not saying they can't do it," said Moody. "That's a lot of hard work for many, many years to come."


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